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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

New foreign deals legislation a risk to research collaboration

I was asked today by a journalist at the South China Morning Post for my thoughts on the proposed new foreign deals legislation that is meant to assert the Commonwealth's authority over foreing policy.

The proposed legislation's main purpose is to put a stop to state and local governments entering agreements with foreign powers that may not be in the national interest. But I am concerned about its likely impact on research collaboration between Australian universities and foreign universities, particularly China's leading research institutes.

The relevant Bill is yet to be introduced into the federal parliament. The Bill is expected next week. In the meantime, interested readers might want to read this Canberra Times article on the proposed legislation: New foreign deals legislation not an attack on China: Scott Morrison.

Leaving aside the obvious question, "if not China, then who?" I thought it worth looking at the possible impact the legislation would have on our university sector which has a high level of research collaboration with China. The following was my response to the SCMP (not sure they will use it in full so always good to publish it here for the record).

Upholidng federalism

The proposed Bill makes sense from a federalist perspective where the state and local governments are concerned. Foreign Affairs is the preserve of the Federal Government and you can understand that Canberra should have oversight of what state and local governments do in that sphere.

But centralist tendency a concern ...

However, requiring public universities to subject agreements with foreign governments to review by the Federal Government is overreach and an unnecessary burden on the university sector. While we are yet to see the legislation – and the Devil is always in the details of these things – I am concerned it will likely push Chinese research institutes to look to other markets to partner with for research and that will create a funding gap for our public universities that will not be easy to fill.

Furthermore, it could mean Australian researchers will be cut out of much of the leading-edge research being undertaken in the world today (a recent Harvard study found that Chinese researchers are involved in almost one-third of international research articles*). Indeed, our international competitors are likely to benefit from Chinese research institutes partnering with them instead just because it will become too cumbersome to partner with Australian universities.

A more nuanced approach needed

Rather than require public universities to have every agreement approved by the Federal Government, I’d prefer to see the Government clarify what types of research or which foreign research bodies Australian universities should not be involved with; if a university were to breach such guidelines there should be clear consequences. Such an approach would recognise the ability of researchers and university ethics committees to make decisions in areas in which they are more knowledgeable than government officials who may be more concerned with the politics of the day.

* See Qingnan Xie and Richard B. Freeman, "Bigger than you thought: China's contribution to scientific publications and its impact on the global economy", China & the World Economy, 1-27, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2019.

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